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Saturday, March 6, 2010

On Hockey

Statement starts from the top
Deraney’s award puts crowning touch on playoff hype

Not so surprisingly, there was a substantial sprinkling of individual accolades to go around the PC women’s hockey team at the Providence Marriott banquet room last night. Five Skating Friars were among the 18 honorees named to the WHEA’s three All-Star squads, making the regular season champions the most broadly represented program on that ballot.

But none of those –First-Team forward Ashley Cottrell, Second-Teamers Genevieve Lacasse, Jean O’Neill, and Amber Yung, and honorable mention Alyse Ruff- jutted quite like head coach Bob Deraney, who garnered an arguably overdue laurel as the league’s top skipper.

In nabbing his first such honor in 11 years at PC, Deraney has personified the same struggle-and-triumph script he and his pupils hope to wrap up in today’s semifinal and tomorrow’s conference championship. He indubitably had ample hordes of legitimate competition for the prize he claimed last night.

It was certainly tough to overlook, say, the likes of Northeastern co-coaches Linda Lundigran and Laura McAuliffe, who not only stood in for their boss Dave Flint while he served as Mark Johnson’s Olympic sidekick all season, but guided the still-burgeoning Huskies to 15 weeks’ worth of national poll membership.

Boston University’s Brian Durocher would not have been a laughable candidate, either, seeing how he has kept the Terriers on the cusp of the Top 10 and witnessed a 5-0-3 stretch run to the conference semis. And maybe if his players had perked up one or two weeks sooner and salvaged a long-craved playoff berth, Tim Bothwell of Vermont might have surpassed his peers on the ballot.

Those are all good, but the reason Deraney conquered them all is the same reason Russian and Scandinavian militaries used to turn the table in their winter campaigns. It was good old Generals January and February.

After sitting at a superficially distressing 4-7-6 at the halfway mark of their regular season, the Friars regrouped to go 1-0-1 in a fleeting December, that win being an icebreaking 4-1 victory at former nemesis New Hampshire. On the other half of a three-week holiday respite, Providence jostled with little disruption on a 10-3-2 stretch run.

In recent years, Deraney has grown nominally accustomed to weaving a promising second half out of an, at best, so-so first half. But in terms of initial desperation and subsequent confidence, neither half has been quite as extreme as they both were in 2009-10.

It has even reached a point where Deraney is willing to outright put a proud “Well Deserved” label on the regular season trophy his students sealed up two weeks ago at Vermont. Although, in combining the immediate past and the immediate future, his assessment still contains plenty of customary caution (as is expected of a seasoned Professor of Puck).

“Do I think we’re the best team in the league? I do think we’re the best team in the league,” Deraney recently professed. “But that really doesn’t mean anything if you don’t come and put on your best performance when you need it the most, and that’s what we’re focusing on.

“All year long, we’ve been focusing on one thing and that’s to play a perfect game.

“And we’ve been playing playoff games for a very long time now. When you have a record of 4-7-6, every game has meaning. We’re used to playing under these conditions.”

That has to be the most encouraging point for Friartownies who will stroll onto campus for today’s semifinal engagement with Connecticut. As of last, PC was in a knot with the Terriers for No. 11 in the PairWise rankings, three thick and distant rungs short of an at-large passport to the NCAA tournament. Even a berth in tomorrow’s title tilt would guarantee diddlysquat in that department.

Translation: by their perennially lofty standards, the Friars are, for all intents and purposes, still under the same conditions they have been under since Thanksgiving. If they are to return to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005, there is next to no room for error.

By all counts, Deraney is well aware of that. It seems his personal hunk of hardware –which he can now add to the Vincent C. Dore award he will receive from PC’s athletic department next month- was not even part of his checklist, which is only one-third completed anyway.

“I think there are three jewels in a college hockey season,” he concluded. “You’ve got the regular season championship, the tournament championship, and the NCAA championship. We’re very excited and proud to have acquired that first jewel. That’s a great accomplishment, but that’s behind us now.”

So, too, is all of the buildup to the playoffs. Deraney started that some three months ago by building up conviction in his would-be disheartened pupils. He ended it last night with at least one extra home game on tap and a hard-earned coach’s crown in his possession.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Thursday, March 4, 2010

On Hockey

Watching the Veharanta volcano

Naturally, there is no sense in anybody even pretending to be a puck prophet and asserting that Laura Veharanta is going to repeat history and snap yet another scoring slump at the expense of Connecticut in this Saturday’s semifinal engagement.

But for the Friars’ sake, there would be no better time for Veharanta –pointless in her last seven games- to not only prove that she has been storing up liters of carbonated scoring prowess, but to wrathfully release it on the likes of Husky goaltender Alexandra Garcia.

It would, naturally, be another invaluable additive to the Friars’ cause in what ought to be nothing less than yet another defense-first, arm-wrestling bout between the Southern New England rivals.

Yet equally true, it would add another savory tally to the storytellers’ scoreboard. It would add another dollop of continuity to Veharanta’s uncanny history of shaking off bouts of Deadened Stick Syndrome when she confronts Garcia and her praetorian guards.

In last year’s quarterfinal tangle at Schneider Arena, the same site of this weekend’s WHEA Frozen Four, Veharanta snapped a six-game pointless skid by planting PC a 1-0 lead just 14 seconds into the opening frame. She later added an assist to cement a 3-0 triumph.

And then, last November, after going goal-less in nine games throughout October, Veharanta potted the Friars’ lone regulation goal, then connected in the shootout as part of a 2-1 road victory.

But ever since, she has but two additional goals to speak of. Her final regular season transcript thus reads 3-9-12 through 32 appearances, a frightful devolution from the 16-15-31 log that topped last year’s PC scoring charts and made her the only unanimous selection to the 2008-09 Hockey East All-Rookie squad.

Just as her copious collateral helped to cloud last year’s February case of freshman frostbite, the Friars’ collective post-New Year’s resurgence this season has likely obscured Veharanta’s individual slump. After she outwitted Garcia the day after Halloween, she proceeded to tune the opposing mesh twice more. That happened to be in back-to-back games, a 4-1 home loss to Wisconsin on November 28 and a 4-1 win at New Hampshire the following week.

Since then, she has dressed for 14 games and notched a mere three assists in that span. Along the way, she missed the first two games of the year 2010 with a mild illness, returned to play two games on the fourth line, then ascended back to her noteworthy assignment on the right wing with Ashley Cottrell and Nicole Anderson.

But after six games back together and with a little less clutch clockwork the trinity had demonstrated on the power play in November, Veharanta was again shuffled down to work with senior grinders Jackie Duncan and Pam McDevitt to start the month of February. Three games later, she was reunited with Anderson and Cottrell for the Vermont series that ultimately sealed the regular season crown. Although, one thing it didn’t do was splash Veharanta’s scoring drought.

Ironically, though, Veharanta did score one recent goal that did not count towards her totals, but had indubitable repercussions in the playoff race. She beat –guess who?- Garcia to bust a 0-0 deadlock in the fourth round of a February 12 shootout, thereby granting the Friars an extra Hockey East point at UConn’s expense.

On that thought, there may be some merit to the notion of Garcia being the cure –or, at least, a cure- for Veharanta’s occasional slide, after all. But first, she will have to throw out a little more salsa-based rubber, especially since her fellow sophomore Garcia has substantially matured upon claiming the starting job in Connecticut early this season.

In her radiant rookie campaign, Veharanta led the Friars with 140 shots on goal to flow right along with her leading productivity. Conversely, she enters the 2010 postseason with a comparatively slim 57 SOG, which places her behind eight of her teammates under that heading.

Therein lays a pattern one could probably swear by with even more conviction than banking on Garcia and only Garcia to answer Veharanta’s “Open Sesame!” cry. If Veharanta can replenish her confidence and her chemistry with Anderson and Cottrell –the latter of who has shared a hand in 22 scoring plays with her since they both arrived last year- then perhaps she can dish out a good four or five biscuits on Garcia’s property.

That would be a start. And if it amounts to a red light, which would mark Veharanta’s first since she threw in an insurance tally as part of the revolutionary conquest of Lake Whittemore back on December 5, it could very well mean more than prolonging a personal pattern. It could mean more than one puckslinger refilling on her swagger against the same opposing goalie for the third time.

It could also mean helping to rerun a motif of PC halting the Huskies’ quest for the Hockey East playoff crown.

Either that, or the Friars and the epic bards of the media alike will have to work a little harder to get what they want.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com